The great Shema, perhaps the oldest daily prayer of Judaism, begins with the invitation to “hear.” The Rule of Benedict, a document for the governing of religious communities, which has probably been in longer successful and continuous usage than any other, begins with the word “listen.” Given such emphasis upon listening and hearing among faithful people, it came as no surprise when we noticed recently that the great German pastor and theologian of the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had dedicated an entire chapter of his book, “Life Together,” to the subject of listening.
Bonhoeffer had organized an underground community of theological students who shared his commitment to resistance of the Nazis. Compassion, trust, understanding and mutual support were essential in Bonhoeffer’s community if the members were to avoid detection by the authorities as they daily worked and prayed for the end of the brutal governing regime.
As Bonhoeffer wrote about the essential role of listening for his community, he noted that we so often think we have to contribute something to the conversation when we are in the company of others. We forget, he said, that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
Bonhoeffer is on to something. Haven’t we all known times when we felt that no one was offering us the simple respect which can be conveyed by listening to us? Perhaps there were times as children when our parents or teachers would not listen to us. Perhaps our own teenage children or our spouse fail to listen to our sage advice. Maybe it seems as if our neighbors, our work associates, or even our elected officials are ignoring us. We’d like to be heard.
But are we listening? Our modern world allows us endless opportunity for self-expression via the Internet and social media. And yet, we’re told, that many people report being more lonely and isolated than ever. Perhaps too many of us are talking and too few are listening.
If we’re wondering how to relearn the ancient, invaluable art of listening, where would we begin? A good starting point might be rereading the treasured biblical story of the boy Samuel. One night, the story goes, Samuel was awakened by a voice calling his name. He ran to the old priest, Eli, assuming Eli had called. But Eli instructed Samuel to go back to sleep. This pattern of hearing his name called, running to Eli, and being told to go back to sleep repeated itself several times until Eli eventually perceived that the call in the night to Samuel was from God. He instructed Samuel to reply, if his name should be called again, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
That may just be the best spiritual advice ever given. Maybe hearing ourselves called to compassionate outreach or meaningful service would be the result of some dedicated listening on our parts. Maybe relationships and communities would rediscover trust, mutual understanding and respect with some concerted effort at hearing one another. If we all spoke a little less and listened a little more, the cacophony of our modern world just might resolve itself into something more melodious, more harmonious. How good are you at listening?